The Supreme Court ruled that the ban on life without parole (LWOP) sentences for young people must be applied retroactively. This can alleviate the crisis of aging behind bars in the future.
A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court makes all young people currently serving LWOP (life without parole) sentences eligible for release through resentencing or parole. This extends an earlier Supreme Court ruling that young people cannot be given life without parole; the earlier ruling didn’t make the ban retroactive.
What’s this got to do with elders behind bars? As incarcerated people with long sentences age, the proportion of the prison population over the age of 50 continues to grow. So limiting the use of LWOP can cut the number of people who will grow old behind bars in years to come.
And there’s another connection. Any limitation of the use of LWOP sentences is a step (albeit small) toward underming a key foundation of the human rights abuse represented by mass incarceration and the carceral state. Limiting LWOP means limiting reliance on permanent punishment—a practice that relegates some people (mostly people of color) to a class without the right to a second chance. So many of the elders behind bars in this country are serving long sentences for something done decades ago. They continue to be punished—in New York, every two years when they are denied parole—even when their release from prison is clearly the sensible path.
LWOP is called, by some, “the other death sentence.” Barring its use for young people has to be a step toward barring LWOP altogether. But like every other sensible and humane change that could be made to the prison system, this one will only take place if we activists make it happen. Fighting LWOP is part of fighting to release aging people in prison—and to end the racist practices that underly the crisis of mass incarceration.